The Hooters restaurant on the boardwalk in Ocean City, where there’s been a debate over women going topless on the beach. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)
Columnist

On a sunny day on the boardwalk, with salt on her skin and ocean breezes snapping the American flag behind her, Cynthia Heath did not want her perfect beach vacation ruined by toplessness.

“Not here, Ocean City is not that kind of place, it’s a family place. Absolutely not,” Heath, 55, said, leaving the restaurant where she just had lunch with her husband, her 9-year-old granddaughter and her granddaughter’s friend.

They ate at Hooters.

Welcome to America, land of mixed messages and double standards. Breasts, especially, continue to confound us.

Breasts made national news because the all-American summer destination Ocean City was confused about whether women could show them.

And that’s pretty funny.

Because this family-friendly place with “No Profanity” signs along the boardwalk also has guys selling Bongzilla outside its boardwalk shops; T-shirts with pot jokes, sex jokes and drinking jokes on every corner; hotels with giant kiddie pools outside and clouds of marijuana smoke inside; guys lugging suitcases of Pabst everywhere. Also: twerking, thongs and foam dance parties galore.

But please, save the children from breasts.

Ocean City did not want this, and you can understand why. June is usually the month when city officials white-knuckle their way through Senior Week, dreading the moments when underage drinking and sexual assault make headlines.

But this year, a debate about toplessness was their new flavor of indigestion.

It began with a legal challenge filed by a beachgoing activist who argued that if men can show off their chests and nipples at the beach, women should be able to do it, too. Maryland law is not entirely clear when it comes to the question of whether women are expressly prohibited from baring their breasts in public.

So the beach patrol told lifeguards not to confront bare-chested women or ask them to cover up while the issue was sorted out.

“Ocean City is topless!” came the fist-pumping, voice-cracking howls from teen boys across the Mid-Atlantic.

“Ocean City can’t be topless!” shouted the families who go there.

Suddenly, amid the agony and ecstasy of imagining topless women alongside the carousel rides and Thrasher’s Boardwalk Fries, the Ocean City Council convened an emergency meeting Saturday to pass a public nudity ban. The ordinance makes public nudity a municipal infraction punishable by a fine of $1,000 and once again enforceable by the local beach patrol.

An ordinance that, of course, specifically targets women.

Ocean City was never going to be like Cannes or Crete. One lifeguard said everyone still remembers the three European women who went topless over by 11th Street a while back. But the issue is an interesting one, a chance to talk about freedom, family values and government intervention.

So what did people on the beach make of it all? No better place to start than at a beerless beer pong party right on the sand.

When I asked about toplessness, there was silence, as all seven young men froze in place, their eyes widening. Then, a beat later, they started chanting, fists in the air: “Take it off! Take it off!”

“Can you tell all of them to take their tops off?” asked a very hopeful 18-year-old who had come to Ocean City with a group of friends from Pottsville, Pa.

“No, guys. Stop. That’s not what I’m saying,” I said.

“Take it off! Take it off!”

So the young women started teasing them.

“Can I? Can I take it off?” asked an 18-year-old from Pottsville, who had just graduated from high school and should not have given me her full name. Lordy, what did I start?

“Well, there’s actually an ordinance now against that and . . . ” I began, before she untied her white bikini top and flashed all of us.

I scrambled to leave, my getaway slow and awkward in the sand in my comfortable mom shoes.

“What about breast-feeding?” asked the sharpest young man in the bunch just as I turned my back. Lewis Woodard, 18, is going far. He saw the weakness in everyone’s argument and nailed it.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that. That exposes breasts,” said Woodard, who is from La Plata, Md., and attends Shawnee State University in Ohio. “A woman has the right to decide what to do with her body.”

Dang. He’s good.

Equally woke was Darren James, 25, who sat on a boardwalk bench wearing a shirt, “The Future is Female.”

“I understand that bras can be uncomfortable for women,” he reasoned. “Why force them to wear something that’s uncomfortable?”

Smooth, guys.

Sitting next to James was Melissa Lee, 25, who saw through the bra empathy but was simply appalled at the idea that the United States has no problem writing legislation that singles out a specific group.

A lot of bikini tops do little to cover much of the breast beyond the nipple, she observed, as the truth of all shapes and sizes jiggled past us on the boardwalk. Meanwhile, hundreds of exposed, male nipples also sauntered by.

“So when you write a law telling all of the men they have to wear bras to cover that up, then you can write a law telling me to wear a bra,” she said.

Of course, men will never be told to cover up. And even if the law didn’t tell women how to dress, society will.

“People were all, ‘You’re lettin’ her go out like that?’ ” said Essence Blackwell, 19, who was causing a stir on the boardwalk with her tiny, thong bikini and was stunned that folks were all over her boyfriend for what she was wearing.

She’s a manager of a makeup counter at a department store, a college student and an independent woman. Why should her boyfriend have to answer for her skimpy bikini, she asked?

“Plus I paid $56.99 for this. I’m wearing it!” she said.

Seriously? $56.99 for less material than you’ll find in a footie sock? That’s the part that shocked me.

But here’s what I can report, after a sunburn, dozens of interviews and one bad boardwalk food decision:

The people most vehemently supportive were, no surprise, young men.

Also, the compression sock boardwalk grandpas, the kind who say “the salty air is good for me.” All in.

Also, the woman who has two star tattoos just above her nipples, so her low-slung tube top makes it look like she’s topless. “But only in designated areas, away from kids,” she said.

Most of the folks with families said they don’t want toplessness in Ocean City. Many said they were conservative, politically, and don’t like the government telling them what to do.

Except in this case.

“This is about decency,” one woman said.

The people most vehemently against topless sunbathing were older, married women.

“I don’t want him looking at that,” said every grandma I talked to, including the Hooters grandma, who was also celebrating her 33rd wedding anniversary.

“I’ve been on the lookout all day,” said her husband, Billy Heath. “I was hoping I would see just one.”

The big takeaway?

When it comes to breasts — and double standards — Americans are total boobs.

Correction: We have removed a teen’s name from an earlier version of this column after he insisted someone else used his name in an interview. He was quoted asking,“Can you tell all of them to take their tops off?” He said he is 18, not 19.

Twitter: @petulad